George Barret was almost certainly taught by his father, a painter and Royal Academician of the same name. Unlike him, the younger Barret specialised in landscape watercolours, becoming one of the founder members of the Society of Painters in Water Colours in 1804, where he exhibited almost every year until his death in 1842.
Barret began his career painting Thames Valley scenery, but in the mid 1820s transitioned to a topographically non-specific kind of landscape based on the imagination and deeply redolent of the classical landscape tradition.
Barret’s arcadian visions were ultimately inspired by the 17th-century French painter Claude Lorrain, whose classical compositions were imitated in England from the middle of the 18th century by garden designers and painters alike, including Francis Oliver Finch and John Glover. Barret learned to see the landscape in terms of set formulae, allowing him to recast his sub-Claudian style in ever-new permutations.
In the Barret watercolour in the Art Gallery of NSW collection, Classical landscape from the late 1820s/30s, various architectural, human and natural elements are harmoniously disposed to evoke a mood of distilled serenity. The artist’s attention to the subtleties of compositional balance can also be seen by his addition, after the picture was finished, of vertical paper strips about 2 cm wide on either side, extending the foreground.
An essential element of Barret’s style, noted by Martin Hardie in Water-colour painting in Britain, was his marked preference for warm colours, ‘as though he were trying to paint not merely a Claude but the golden varnish that covers a Claude’. He also made liberal use of gum arabic, applied selectively over the dry watercolour, to achieve a saturated, mellow finish.
While Barret’s work might lack originality, it displays considerable skill in capturing the effects of subtly diffused light. In his 1840 treatise The theory and practice of water-colour painting, he recounts how the representation of such phenomena as moonlight, sunset and sunrise must depend upon the repeated observation and study of nature.
Barret’s own passage on twilight provides the most fitting commentary to his painting: ‘After the sun has for some time disappeared, twilight begins gradually to spread a veil of grey over the late glowing scene… At this time of the evening to repose in some sequestered spot, far removed from the turmoil of public life, and where stillness, with the uncertain appearance of all around, admits of full scope for the imagination to range with perfect freedom, is to the contemplative mind a source of infinite pleasure.’
Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017